Global Policy Forum

Korea at Margin of World Culture?


By Jon Huer

July 26, 2009


Of all the nations that aspire to be at the summit of the world, Korea is at the very front. Its effort to reach world-ranking is as touchingly obvious as it is ferociously determined.

But the effort seems to bear little or no fruit in reality as it continues to be at the margins of ''world culture.'' Korea still remains, for all its effort and aspiration, misunderstood, puzzled over and an eyebrow-raiser. In short, Korea remains a ''strange'' country. That this is so is admitted by Koreans themselves.

According to a report on a Korean Web site titled, ''To Foreign Reporters, Korean Politics Too Strange,'' the leader of the opposition party held a press conference for the Foreign Press in Korea. He told the foreign reporters, when they asked him about Korea's domestic politics: ''The Korean political situation is too complicated for the foreign press to comprehend, and so we must end our press conference here and now.'' The phrase ''too complicated'' might easily be ''too strange'' or ''too bizarre.''

I agree with the leading opposition politician: Korea is so strange that what passes for ''normal'' and ''routine'' in Korea belongs to the extreme margins of world culture.

Every society has its main culture and its subcultures. The main culture represents the nation and symbolizes its society, character and way of life. In most advanced nations, the main culture tends to be open and easily comprehensible, to both its own members and visitors alike.

Visitors to Holland, for example, expect much of Dutch behavior to be clear to all, nothing that is open only to Dutch comprehension but closed to all others. The subcultures, on the other hand, exist in virtually every society and belong to smaller groups (in the US, for example, hippies, Cajuns, inner-city residents, new immigrants) whose own traditions, behavior and languages are mostly alien to outsiders.

By the same token, the global world has its main culture and subcultures. The European Union and the US, along with Japan, make up today's dominant ''world culture;'' as such, they form an economic-political-cultural group that sets the world's agenda.

When the leaders get together or their officials talk to one another on various levels, they understand each other in their mutual similarities and interdependencies. They share each other's general intellectual concepts and moral precepts that are familiar to them. In short, they form the world's main culture.

The whole idea of ''globalization'' is the attempt of each society to reach this apex of world culture and life. The farther away a society is placed from this main culture, the ''stranger'' the nation appears to the main center of the world and, consequently, more ''estranged'' the nation becomes from the center of action and understanding. The emerging nations, such as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are trying to replace or join the dominant Western-capitalist group and become part of the world's main cultural force.

If the US is one of the center cultures, Mexico is one of the non-center cultures although it borders the U.S. But because of its proximity with the US and its Spanish-Catholic cultural heritage, Mexico does not appear quite as removed from the center as its economic status would indicate.

Similarly, India is quite removed from the center economically, but politically and historically, India does not appear to be such an ''alien'' culture to the rest of the world, as its cultural and intellectual habits seem quite close to the world's dominant cultural center. It is relatively easy for a European or an American to converse with a Mexican official or an Indian businessman. Culturally and intellectually, they seem to be able to communicate with the dominant main culture of the world without much difficulty. We rarely hear an expression of utter frustration from people who end up saying that it is ''impossible'' to ''understand'' the Mexican or the Indian because of the cultural or intellectual gap.

On the other hand, if the mainstreamer were to try to communicate with a Kung, a hunter-and-gatherer in Africa, he would find it well-nigh impossible and would naturally place the Kungs' culture as one of the most incomprehensible ''subcultures'' of the world, probably at the edge of the world.

Now, as the reader might have anticipated, the question that's interesting to us arises here: Where is Korea's culture placed in the world map of culture and subcultures? Is it close to the main culture of the world as its economic and technological advancement might indicate?

Or, is it one of the utterly removed ''strange'' subcultures, like the Kungs, as so much is made of Korea's cultural strangeness and its alien thinking patterns? Do the mainstream-cultures find Korean culture - the Korean mind, Korean moral precepts, Korean subconscious, all that makes up Korean culture - easy enough to understand, as they would Mexico or India?

Economically and structurally, Korea is way ahead of both Mexico and India. If anything, we would be inclined to place Korea nearer the center of the world than either Mexico or India. Yet, there is the nagging question of how easy or difficult it is for the world to understand Korea and comprehend its way of thinking and feeling.

In spite of its economic and structural standing, Korea remains a mystery and a puzzle to those at the center of the world who struggle to understand it and comprehend its ways.

Judged from the main center of globalism and international culture, Korea's seems to be one of the most difficult cultures to understand and comprehend, placed near the edge of the world on its culture map.

Among the OECD-members, the world's top-30 or so societies, very likely Korea's is the most marginally comprehensible of all cultures and nations among them. One columnist wonders why Korean food is unwelcome to Americans while Japanese sushi, Chinese cuisines and Thai dishes are not.

The presidents of Korea, including the current one, are some of the few world leaders who cannot communicate with other world leaders comfortably in English. The English language as the medium of world-cultural communication has so little presence in Korean culture and society, although Koreans spend more money and time on acquiring it than any other non-English-native nations.

Korea's English-language newspapers have virtually no impact in the ongoing debates of Korean society or culture. Their role is so marginal that, if one tried to understand Korea through its English-language newspapers, very little understanding would occur.

Many Koreans don't know English-language papers exist and many don't care if they do. The proliferation of English is incredible in its sheer volume, yet Korea's widely used English words and phrases are so thoroughly Koreanized that English in Korea itself has become an alien cultural object to visiting foreigners. Visitor after visitor laments that Korea's ability for English communication is startling for its absence and inadequacy.

Behaviorally, Korea's culture is much more marginal and its social conduct is on the order of bizarre. Schoolgirls break down with the fear of dying from eating mad-cow beef forced on them by the government; the whole nation goes into a convulsion over the suicide of an ex-president who was under investigation for corruption; virtually all rules in Korea, in business, in manufacturing, in food safety, in traffic laws, in simple public behavior, are either not enforced or only marginally observed; yet, the government concocts a largely hare-brained idea of selling Korea's image overnight as if it is Nike's shoes or Diet Coke.

These cultural quirks of Korea, large and small, widely noticed or barely recognized, give the impression that Korean culture remains one of the world's most unintelligible and incomprehensible subcultures and is comprehended only among insiders.

Outside Korea, where international, global, rational norms are expected, this exclusive ''insiders' Korea'' merely perpetuates an image that is largely strange, unintelligible and sub-cultural to the mainstream sector of the world. It is true; Korea is too complicated for foreigners to understand!

We shall all rejoice when this insider's Korea is transformed into something easily understandable and open to the center-culture of the world.


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